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If You Want Employee Engagement, Lead With Your Listening Skills

June 7, 2017

Lead by listening

As an executive coach, I was working with Phil, director of finance for his company. He shared frustrations he was having with one of his staff accountants, Melinda. She wasn’t performing to his expectations, yet he struggled communicating with her. “She gets defensive so easily,” he said. “I have trouble speaking with her about performance issues. I feel like we are pulling in opposite directions.”

I suggested that as clearly and specifically as he could, Phil should explain his performance expectations, including the reasons. I also encouraged him to frame his communications in a go-forward, future-looking, positive way.

Phil proceeded to lay out his expectations in great detail, providing reasons for each, and identifying gaps in Melinda’s performance with those expectations. Phil then articulated specific solutions by which Melinda could close these gaps.

“Your message was terrific except for one thing,” I said.

I showed Phil a picture of a large period and a large question mark with a ratio sign between them. “This symbolizes the Period/Question-Mark Ratio. When you’re conversing with your employees, for every one of your sentences that ends in a period, how many end with question marks?

“You did a terrific job of laying out the facts. Now to really engage Melinda, you need to blend in questions. Invite her to be part of the process.”

I taught Phil the “EAR” method of listening, where “E” stands for “explore,” which means asking open-ended, exploratory questions; “A” is for “acknowledge,” by which the listener confirms his or her understanding with the speaker; and after the speaker confirms that the listener’s understanding is correct, the listener “responds,” the “R.”

After some practice, Phil built questions into his planned discussion with Melinda. What did she think? How did she see things? What did she see as a solution? How can I [Phil] help you succeed?

The results? Very soon a low-trust, low-engagement relationship turned into high trust, high engagement. And Phil became a devotee of leading through questions.

A method for applying leadership listening skills

There are three pillars of engaged workplace relationships: (1) making a difference, (2) sharing a purpose, and (3) connecting personally. I can think of no better way to support all three than developing a habit of asking employees questions and listening to their answers.

The Period/Question-Mark Ratio and EAR method form an excellent one-two combination. The first is for self-awareness. It’s a check-in. I’ll find myself speaking to someone when a little voice inside my head whispers, “What’s your ratio, Jathan?” I’ll make a quick count. If it’s skewed toward periods, I’ll stop and ask a question instead of making another statement.

The EAR supplies the methodology. Its three parts are usually done in sequence:

  1. Start by exploring the other person’s position, asking open-ended questions such as, “What do you think?,” “How do you see it?,” “What are some examples?”
  2. Move to acknowledgment, confirming your understanding of what the person thinks is important: “So if I understand you . . . Is that accurate?” “So your main concern is . . . Is that right?”
  3. After the person confirms that you understand what matters, respond.

Why is the EAR method effective?

  1. It improves the quality of your response. Instead of shooting from the hip, following the EAR sequence will give you the information and time to craft a nuanced, intelligent response.
  2. At the psychological level, the “E” and the “A” combine to create a receptive environment for communication.
  3. The EAR method eliminates perhaps the number one culprit in relationship breakdown: the erroneous assumption. Far too often, we jump to our response, basing it on what we assume about the other person. We shouldn’t be surprised that our response elicits a negative reaction—its inaccuracy offends the other person, who feels misunderstood.

The EAR listening method is especially useful in building engaged relationships. Simply by using this method, you will create a stronger personal connection with your employees.

Adapted, with permission of the publisher, from Hard-Won Wisdom: True Stories from the Management Trenches by Jathan Janove. Copyright 2016, Jathan Janove. Published by AMACOM.

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Supervisors must maintain their technical expertise while demonstrating leadership. Build your effectiveness with skills such as communicating, listening, coaching, and problem solving.
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About The Author

Jathan Janove is principal of Janove Organization Solutions and the author of Hard-Won Wisdom: True Stories from the Management Trenches (AMACOM, 2016). A contributor to HR Magazine and a popular management blogger, he has 25 years’ experience litigating workplace relationships. He is also the author of Managing to Stay Out of Court.

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